Aside from random episodes of Dragonball Z and Robotech I managed to catch while growing up, my expose to anime was mostly at the tail end of high school and mostly in college. I have a lot of fond memories of Toonami exposing me to things like Gundam Wing (still my favorite, fight me!) and Cowboy Bebop (still a secret shame I haven’t watched the show in its entirety). It was there that friends began exposing me to the works of Studio Ghibli. Starting with Princess Mononoke, I then delved into some of the back catalog. To this day I consider My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, and Nausicaa among my favorite animated films ever.
I had great expectations for the first game in the series, specifically because of the Studio Ghibli connection. And while the animated sequences, character design, and charm were ALL there in spades, unfortunately the actual GAME part of the title failed to keep my interest. What started out as a potentially interesting combat system where I could control several familiars on the battlefield quickly turned into a chore. With battles becoming very “grindy” and not providing much satisfaction. After investing a few dozen hours into the game, I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it, and had plenty of other RPG options at the time to play.
This long preamble just goes to show how much of an improvement I think Ni No Kuni 2 is over the original. While this game doesn’t have the direct Ghibli involvement, their mark is indelibly on every aspect of the characters, world design, and even the lighthearted nature of the story that can just as quickly go to some dark, realistic places. Hell, even the first few minutes of the game let you know that “shit gets real” sometimes.
The story starts with what appears to be (although not expressly stated) the President of the US driving into a city looking very “official” and out of nowhere a NUCLEAR missile streaks past his motorcade and appears to detonate over the center of the city he was driving to. While it appears he’s letting loose his mortal coil, he finds himself magically transported to Ding Dong Dell and thrust into helping the boy King Evan escape a coup. From there the story becomes young Evan’s quest to create a world free of war. The characters are all very charming and even though a lot are simply one-note, Evan and Roland (the POTUS) are the most fleshed out and appear to have the lion’s share of focus.
So of course I was thinking: “The story is good enough, but will I actually enjoy the game portion?” Luckily the developers (Level 5) seem to have taken this to heart and made the combat much more akin to the Tales series of games. You control a single character in real time combat, with a light/heavy melee attack, a basic ranged attack, and several abilities mapped to the face buttons toggled with the trigger. You’ll generally be facing anywhere from a single, powerful enemy to upwards of a dozen lesser enemies, and luckily you can’t just mash your way to victory all the time. Also, you have to make sure and pay attention to the enemy “tells” as well as their strengths/weaknesses. And if that didn’t seem like enough, shortly after the tutorial section you’re even given access to Higgledies, which can best be thought of elemental Pikmin who will randomly use special abilities and occasionally allow you to unleash their power during a battle.
The above gameplay/story alone would make me happy enough, but the developers then decide to implement not one but TWO other gameplay mechanics that are used throughout the game so far to break up the standard gameplay loop. The first of which is what I can best describe as an RTS style tactics game where you control 4 different sets of troops.
The developers CLEARLY played some Fire Emblem in their day, as the units all appear to use a form of the aforementioned title’s weapon wheel. Swords, hammers, spears, ranged weapons are all color coded for easy reference while in the heat of battle. But wait, there’s more! In addition to just controlling the units, you have special abilities for each unit similar in execution to the RPG combat. So far, this has been the more difficult aspect for me, as I’m unsure of how to level up my troops and am encountering side quests with troops much higher level than mine.
Still with me here? I know, there’s a lot of systems to process. Apparently the developers disagreed so they then decided to add ANOTHER mechanic to the game. This time what amounts to what I’ve best heard described as a mobile game. At one point in the story you establish a new kingdom, and you are then tasked with building you newly found kingdom and recruiting citizens to come live/work for you.
These citizens all have specialties, and trying to micromanage all of them seems like it can be overwhelming at times. Honestly though, I’ve found this part of the game to be the perfect palate cleanser to the heavy story sections and fast paced RPG combat. I’ve been known to have a penchant for min/maxing my bases in games. If there is an upgrade available, I’m more keen to spend hours going around gathering materials and going on sidequests before progressing the main story. I always have a sense of FOMO when it comes to this type of system, so I tend to overcompensate and try to upgrade EVERYTHING.
Luckily, the game has plenty of side content (as I mentioned above) to accompany the kingdom building. And the quests themselves are fun enough to not make it feel like a slog. It’s a great balance overall, and I find myself never getting bored with any particular type of gameplay since I can just jump to another one for a change of pace.
Also, thankfully, it looks like more Japanese developers are realizing that walking from place to place just to pad the length of your game is a bad idea, and are slowly implementing more “western” style shortcuts to cut down on tedium. The game lets you pretty much fast travel at anytime to any of a number of places you’ve unlocked along your journey, and even goes so far as create several travel points in the major cities you can jump between as well. This could go terribly awry if the load times were bad, but thankfully it only takes a few seconds to load each area, although this could more be my beefy PC and SSD I have the game installed on, so YMMV here.
Ni No Kuni 2 is the latest in a line of games that had a rough first outing but a great concept (I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed). I’ve spent over 35 hours in the game so far and I’m still enjoying every play session, and have even been leaving the game idle while writing these thoughts to earn more currency to improve my kingdom. It’s a solid iteration on the first game that doesn’t really suffer (so far) from the absence of Studio Ghibli, and makes smart improvements that will probably result in me actually finishing the game this time.
Plus, it’s got some GREAT accents for its characters that I love listening to.
Anyways, back to Evermore….